Every memory lies. As each moment passes, it’s gone, never to occupy space with the living again. Some might suggest that a picture or video of a birthday party captures the moment forever, but no snapshot or piece of film successfully recreates, say, the disappointment that panged through my chest when I opened a box containing a drum pedal and not keys to a new moped on my fourteenth birthday.
I remember how my head fit perfectly into my father’s armpit when we lay on the front lawn calling out the images we saw in the clouds. Sometimes we even shouted out the same thing. I remember in fifth grade at my public elementary school when Mrs. Fowler stopped class early to tell us all about the book of Revelations from the Bible. I remember the way she nodded when I asked her if we were really all going to die that way. I remember the torn armrest in the first limo I ever rode in, chunks of blue vinyl missing to reveal the white plastic underneath. I’d ordered it for Stacie’s birthday the first year we were dating. I remember how she’d said she thought it was “perfect.” I remember the prostitute I mistook for a clerk outside an office supply store, the way she smiled when she asked if I needed anything and I told her “jumbo paperclips.” I remember how I told my cousin I wanted to eat his pet snails because they looked spongy. The thunder bouncing off the mountains in Vermont. Squirrels dropping nuts from the oak tree onto the top of my stainless steel grill. Lake Erie. Sand. Mud. Waves.
Memories have no connective tissue, the sinew stripped clean from the thoughts that spill. I wish I could sew the moments together, double-knotting the ends and snipping out those that are irrelevant, and I fear if I don’t say them now, here, they will be lost forever.
My memory will get worse, I know. At a Veteran’s Day dinner at my parent’s house, I watched my maternal grandfather agonize to recall the name of his friend who took a mortar shell to the face during WWII. He said his platoon of Marines, stationed in the Pacific, was crouched down behind a hill for hours, waiting for the enemy’s fire to stop. My grandfather instructed his men to hold their positions and not to advance or stand up until they were ordered to do so. He explained to us that he and this friend both joined Marines at the same time—both lying about their ages to enlist. He said this guy had freckles and red hair. He said he told the men over and over to stay down, but after three hours of silence, his friend stood up.
“Maybe he forgot what I’d told him,” my grandfather said. “You forget stuff when you’re out there. They train you to forget most things.”
My grandfather said he tried to grab for the kid when he saw him raise his head above the crest of hill, but he was too late. As he pulled on the kid’s pack, the shot took his friend’s head clean off, so my grandfather only dragged a headless corpse back down.
“Goddammit,” my grandfather shouted at the table, his open palm rubbing back and forth on his scalp. His eyes were shut, his head pointed to the floor. After several seconds he looked up, opened his eyes, and said, “Why can’t I remember his name?”
This darkness grants a necessary respite. Favorable recollections form an inseparable bond with unpleasant memories, twisting into one another until they are unified. Recalling a summer afternoon of finger painting with Mom on the patio inevitably conjures up the evening when I screamed, “I wish you were dead,” when Mom denied my request to stay awake past my bedtime. A mind capable of recalling every scratch on the arm or creak in the wall would collapse onto itself. As would the mind of an eighty-five year old man envisioning the precise arrangement of freckles on his best friend’s face before mortars stripped it clean.